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Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made

Derek Leebaert. St. Martin’s, $32.50 (496p) ISBN 978-1-250-27469-4

Franklin Roosevelt came to the White House backed by a coterie of loyal and talented advisers who played critical roles in navigating the Great Depression and WWII, according to this laudatory group biography from historian Leebaert (Grand Improvisation). At the center of the history are Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who professionalized a corrupt bureaucracy and spearheaded immigration reforms; Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, who kept the New Deal on track and desegregated his department’s Washington, D.C., headquarters on his first day in office; Henry Wallace, who became FDR’s vice president after steering the Agriculture Department through a roster of farming reforms; and Harry Hopkins, who served as a freelance wartime envoy to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Throughout, Leebaert highlights how the quartet’s personal travails—including bad marriages, sexual indiscretions, and poor health—made them kindred spirits and nonjudgmental counselors to Roosevelt. Still, it wasn’t all peaches and cream—Leebaert reports that Hopkins once floated the idea of ousting Perkins, while FDR “tilted the weight of his influence” to oust Wallace from the vice presidency at the 1944 Democratic National Convention and replace him with Harry Truman. Though the prose occasionally plods, Leebaert thoroughly mines diaries, letters, and oral histories to deliver a fine-grained study of the ties that bound this consequential administration. It’s an enlightening investigation into the alchemy of successful governance. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765–1795

Edward J. Larson. Norton, , $32.50 ISBN 978-0-393-88220-9

Pepperdine University historian Larson (Franklin & Washington) explores in this solid account the interplay of liberty and slavery in the decades leading up to and following the American Revolution. Among other individuals and events, Larson spotlights enslaved Boston poet Phillis Wheatley, the 1772 Somerset v. Steuart ruling that American laws protecting slaveholders’ property rights did not apply in England, and Ona Judge, who ran away from President George Washington’s household in 1796. Elsewhere, Larson analyzes meanings of liberty in the writings of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and others; examines how the independence movement, born of opposition to the 1765 Stamp Act, employed slavery as its “activating metaphor”; recounts how the sectional divide deepened at the Constitutional Convention; and details how abolitionists sought to use Benjamin Banneker’s 1792 almanac to refute Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Larson’s memorable turns of phrase (“As arbitrary as it was, the three-fifths compromise acted like a riptide sucking in delegates no matter how they tried to swim against it”) and keen insights into important yet lesser-known figures keep the narrative moving, even as he sticks to mostly familiar terrain. The result is an accessible and informative overview of the paradox at the heart of the American experiment. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Of Cockroaches and Crickets: Learning to Love Creatures That Skitter and Jump

Frank Nischk, trans. from the German by Jane Billinghurst. Greystone, $26.95 (232p) ISBN 978-1-77164-872-1

This creepy and captivating debut from biologist Nischk dives into the world of bugs. “Inconspicuous critters that... we think of as disgusting and annoying if we think of them at all, are often the ones whose stories surprise us most,” contends Nischk as he highlights strange facts about cockroaches and crickets. Cockroaches spend most of their days hiding, Nischk notes, only venturing out at night to look for food, and while they’re not actually immune to nuclear explosions, they are about “ten times as resistant to radiation as we are.” He describes his research on the German cockroach, which revealed that the insects “maintain strong family bonds” that might develop from larvae eating their parents’ excrement. He recounts studying crickets in Ecuador and finding that cricket species sing at different frequencies so they can “avoid misunderstandings when attracting sexual partners.” It’s difficult not to share Nischk’s amazement at his subjects (“A biological treasure slumbers unnoticed in tropical rainforests, and I absolutely wanted to help rescue it from obscurity”), even if some of the material is a bit esoteric. Still, this makes a persuasive case that the “smaller the worlds we can see, the bigger our world becomes.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors That Determine the Fate of Every Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration, and Everything in Between

Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Currency, $28.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-593-23951-3

This sharp study by Flyvbjerg (Megaprojects and Risk), a professor emeritus of program management at Oxford University, and journalist Gardner (Superforecasting) draws lessons in planning from megaprojects across the globe. Surveying the budgets and schedules of hundreds of massive development projects, the authors examine construction successes and failures to offer guidance on how to plan better for projects of any size. They extoll the importance of accurate forecasting and explain that progress on Hong Kong’s high-speed rail project in the early 2010s appeared bungled largely because the corporation overseeing construction had projected an unrealistic forecast that they couldn’t meet. Creating better predictions, the authors posit, requires comparing one’s project to similar projects to get a reasonable estimate, something the Hong Kong transit authority failed to do. On the successful side, Flyvbjerg and Gardner hold up the Empire State Building, which was completed 17% under budget, as an exemplar of the “think slow, act fast” approach that emphasizes rigorous analysis and testing before breaking ground. The stories about the high-stakes world of megaprojects fascinate, and the authors excel at pulling from them broadly applicable lessons on foresight and planning. Readers will find this a boon. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them

Tove Danovich. Agate, $27 (232p) ISBN 978-1-57284-321-9

Journalist Danovich debuts with a heartfelt account of raising pet hens. After spotting a chicken coop in a Brooklyn front yard, Danovich was inspired to adopt her own upon moving to Portland, Ore., where she acquired Peggy, Joan, and Betty (named after the Mad Men characters). Chickens “can change your life if you let them,” she suggests, enumerating the benefits of keeping the pets and offering detailed portraits of hers: Peggy “was the bravest in the bunch” and Joan was deferential while Betty preferred “comfort over exploration.” Danovich grew her flock after suffering losses, including Betty’s death by one of Danovich’s dogs, which the author recounts with grief and guilt. She weaves in a powerful indictment of the poultry industry’s practice of confining chickens to tiny cages, and tells of how she rescued from an egg farm two adult chickens who had been so poorly treated they had to learn such fundamental behaviors as foraging and taking dust baths. Danovich’s commitment to her pets endears and provides an intimate look at animals more often thought of as food than friends (“They weren’t just any someones—they were individuals with a place in both the flock and in my life that would be irreplaceable”). Anyone who’s mulled the possibility of setting up a backyard coop will find this the next best thing. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival

Bozoma Saint John. Viking, $28 (288p) ISBN 978-0-593-30017-6

Saint John captures in this uplifting debut how personal tragedies and regrets shaped her vow to “live life urgently.” Born to Ghanaian immigrants, she married Peter, a second-generation Italian American in 2003, despite the disapproval of her strict parents. Their marriage foundered when troubles hit, including the death of their premature daughter after Saint John developed preeclampsia during her pregnancy. Her second pregnancy was successful, but Saint John’s and Peter’s mutual grief and cultural differences that were so hard to reconcile that t hey “created a valley so deep” between them that they separated with a plan to divorce. Then Peter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Saint John pledged to “no longer take anything for granted, not a love, not a moment.” She recounts the trauma of waiting for him to die, reflecting that “when you’re in darkness, instead of waiting for a ray of sun to appear, you sometimes have to find the light within.” That wisdom carried Saint John through the last days of Peter’s life, and she incorporated it into her career, as well, having held executive-level positions at Pepsi, Apple, and Netflix—where she became “the first and only Black person in the C-suite.” Saint John’s forthright approach and reliance on her spirituality are inspiring. Readers will be touched by this heartfelt message of hope. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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The Education of Kendrick Perkins

Kendrick Perkins with Seth Rogoff. St. Martin’s, $29.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-28034-3

Former NBA center Perkins takes readers behind the scenes of pro hoops and shares his views on racism in this affecting memoir. Perkins was raised by his grandparents from age five, when his mother was murdered. He recounts the loving environment in his grandparents’ home, noting “there were headwinds, forces blowing back at me the whole time, but there was enough pressure in the opposite direction to keep me moving forward on the right path,” and counts basketball, which he began playing at age seven, as one of those positive forces. Drafted just out of high school in 2003, Perkins details his professional arc through the NBA, including his time on the Boston Celtics’ 2008 championship team, but spends ample time discussing off-court matters, stating that Barack Obama missed the truth that “American society seeks the incarceration of Black men” in his famous “Father’s Day Speech”; reflecting on famous Black athletes like Jackie Robinson, who harnessed their status to advance civil rights; and contending that LeBron James has had some of the greatest impact on racial equality by leveraging his own social media influence to protest discrimination and violence. Perkins’s inside view of how Black NBA athletes have fought for equality over the course of history is eye-opening. This will resonate with basketball fans and champions of social justice. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2022 | Details & Permalink

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My Egypt Archive

Alan Mikhail. Yale Univ, $26 (184p) ISBN 978-0-300-26099-1

In this insightful and intimate account of the events leading up to the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Yale historian Mikhail (God’s Shadow) reveals how the inefficiency, corruption, and tyranny of President Hosni Mubarak’s government was replicated within the bureaucratic hierarchy of the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo. Drawing on a journal he kept during his research at the archives between 2001 and 2010, Mikhail conveys the social, economic, and political strife in Egypt during this period through the lens of his own experiences. From the chicanery required to obtain access (“The best strategy for a researcher applying to work in the archive was to meet vagueness with vagueness”) to the capricious application of rules and security protocols, the petty despotism of archive officials mirrors the Egyptian elite’s efforts to maintain authority over the masses. In Mikhail’s sharp character sketches, Madam Amal, the head of the reading room, emerges as the epitome of the Egyptian bureaucrat: focused on maintaining her authority (which she achieved in a sexist society “through her skill and sheer force of will”), strongly conscious of her image, fawning to her superiors, and merciless to her underlings. Through immersive prose and astute analyses of social customs and scholarly practices, Mikhail makes readers feel his own frustrations as well as those of ordinary Egyptians. The result is a visceral and perceptive study of life under autocracy. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Profit: An Environmental History

Mark Stoll. Polity, $35 (280p) ISBN 978-1-5095-3323-7

“Capitalism’s story is tightly woven together with the natural world,” according to this eye-opening survey from environmental historian Stoll (Inherit the Holy Mountain). Exploring how human development has reconfigured the natural environment for more than a million years, Stoll spotlights such innovations as the generation of fire, the mining of minerals, and the translocation of plants and animals. Discussions of the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the post-WWII Great Acceleration feature profiles of individuals who helped launch new stages of capitalism (Christopher Columbus, Andrew Carnegie) or raised awareness about the destructive impact of human progress (George Perkins Marsh, Rachel Carson). Stoll is particularly enlightening on the ways in which early capitalist practices, including the extraction of gold and silver to make coinage, resulted in air and water pollution, species extinction, soil erosion, drought, and even climate change. Throughout, he offers poignant reminders that even a system as ubiquitous and seemingly unassailable as capitalism has the potential to be disrupted by plague, natural disasters, and other forces beyond human control. Sweeping in scope yet grounded in intriguing particulars, this offers fresh perspective on an economic system “we cannot live with... and cannot live without.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2022 | Details & Permalink

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Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It

Janina Ramirez. Hanover Square, $29.99 (464p) ISBN 978-1-335-49852-6

Historian Ramirez (Julian of Norwich) spotlights in this vibrant and accessible account remarkable medieval women including polymath Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe, author of the first autobiography written in English. Diligently sifting through monastic, legal, and diplomatic materials, Ramirez unearths intriguing clues about the power medieval women held and the way they lived, despite contemporaneous efforts to remove them from the historical record. In 10th-century England, for example, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, ruled the kingdom of Mercia after her husband’s death and excelled as a military strategist against the Vikings, but is not remembered as well as her male relatives, largely because her brother “suppressed her reputation in order to bolster his position as king of Wessex.” The chapter beginnings, which recount relevant archaeological discoveries or scholarly reexaminations of primary sources, often link modern women with their medieval predecessors; in one noteworthy instance, Ramirez details how medieval scholar Margarete Kühn, with the help of Caroline Walsh, the wife of a high-ranking U.S. military official, spirited the famed Reisencodex containing the collected writing of 12th-century nun Hildegard of Bingen out of Soviet-occupied East Germany in 1948. Throughout, Ramirez’s adept scene-setting segues gracefully into deeper considerations of these women’s lives and work. This feminist history fascinates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2022 | Details & Permalink

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